Pandemic adds to hunger crisis, pushing more people into poverty and unable to afford food
Without billions in new aid, expect 'famines of biblical proportions': UN agency head
The twin baby boys lay on a bed of woven palm leaves in a remote camp for displaced people in Yemen's north, their collarbones and ribs visible.
They cried loudly, twisting as if in pain, not from disease but from the hunger gnawing away at them.
Here, United Nations officials' increasingly dire warnings that a hunger crisis is growing around the world are becoming reality.
UN agencies have warned that some 250 million people in 20 countries are threatened with sharply spiking malnutrition or even famine in the coming months.
The UN's humanitarian office this week released $100 million US in emergency funding to seven countries most at risk of famine: Yemen, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Congo and Burkina Faso.
But David Beasley, head of the World Food Program (WFP), said billions in new aid are needed. Without it, "we are going to have famines of biblical proportions in 2021," he told The Associated Press last week.
In multiple countries, the coronavirus pandemic has added a new burden on top of the impact of ongoing wars, pushing more people into poverty, unable to afford food. At the same time, international aid funding has fallen short, weakening a safety net that keeps people alive.
In Afghanistan's capital, Kabul, Zemaray Hakimi said he can give his children only one meal a day — usually hard, black bread dunked in tea. He lost his work as a taxi driver after contracting COVID-19 and now waits daily on the street for day labourer work that rarely comes.
When his children complain of hunger, he said, "I tell them to bear it. One day, maybe we can get something better."
South Sudan may be closer than any other country to famine, as crisis after crisis wears on a population depleted by five years of civil war. The UN projected earlier this year that a quarter of the population of Jonglei State, home to more than 1.2 million people, would reach the brink of famine.
Now cut off from much of the world by flooding that has affected some one million people, many South Sudanese have seen farming and other food-gathering activities ripped apart. The challenges are so numerous that even "plastic sheets are not available, as they had largely been used for the previous flood response," the UN humanitarian agency said this week.
COVID-19 has restricted trade and travel. Food prices rose. Post-war unrest remains deadly; gunmen recently fired on WFP boats carrying supplies.
"The convergence of conflict, macroeconomic crisis, recurrent flooding, as well as the indirect impacts of COVID, create a 'perfect storm,'" country director for the CARE aid group, Rosalind Crowther, said in an email. "Flooding and violence have led to massive displacement, low crop production and loss of livelihoods and livestock."
'Countdown to catastrophe'
In the Arabian Peninsula, Yemen is on a "countdown to catastrophe," Beasley warned the UN Security Council last week.
"Famine is truly a real and dangerous possibility, and the warning lights are ... flashing red — as red can be," he said.
For years, Yemen has been the centre of the world's worst food crisis, driven by the destructive civil war between Iranian-backed Houthi rebels — who in 2014 took over the north and the capital, Sanaa — and a Saudi-led coalition backing the government in the south.
International aid pulled it from the edge of famine two years ago. But the threat has surged back this year, fuelled by increasing violence and a currency collapse that put food out of reach for growing numbers of people.
Donors have been wary of new funding because of corruption and restrictions that Houthis have put on humanitarian workers. The UN had to cut in half the rations it gives to nine million people — and faces possible cuts to another six million in January.
The 18-month-old twins, Mohammed and Ali, weigh only about three kilograms, or 6.6 pounds, less than a third of the weight they should be, according to their doctor.
Their father, Hassan al-Jamai, was a farmer in northern Hajjah province, near the border with Saudi Arabia. Soon after their birth, the family had to flee fighting to a displaced camp in the district of Abs.
"We are struggling to treat them," said their grandmother, Mariam Hassam. "Their father took them everywhere."
Situation in Yemen, Afghanistan
Two-thirds of Yemen's population of about 28 million people are hungry. In the south, UN data from recent surveys shows that cases of severe acute malnutrition rose 15.5 per cent this year, and at least 98,000 children under five could die of it.
By the end of the year, 41 per cent of the south's eight million people are expected to have significant gaps in food consumption, up from 25 per cent.
The situation could be worse in Sanaa and the north, home to more than 20 million people. The UN is currently conducting a similar survey there.
Sanaa's main hospital, Al-Sabeen, received more than 180 cases of malnutrition and acute malnutrition in the past three months, well over its capacity, said Amin al-Eizari, a nurse.
At least five children died at the hospital during that period, with more dying outside, he said.
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres on Friday urged parties with influence in Yemen to take action to "stave off catastrophe" or risk a tragedy with "consequences that will reverberate indefinitely into the future."
Yemen is "now in imminent danger of the worst famine the world has seen for decades," he said.
In Afghanistan — like Yemen, crippled by war — the pandemic has meant further losses of jobs and mounting food prices. The poverty rate is expected to leap this year from 54 per cent of the population of some 36 million to as high as 72 per cent, according to World Bank projections.
Some 700,000 Afghan workers returned from Iran and Pakistan this year, fleeing coronavirus outbreaks. That halted millions of dollars in remittances, a key income for families in Afghanistan, and returnees flooded the ranks of those needing work.
Markets in Kabul seem full of food items. But shop owners say fewer customers can afford anything. More people are experiencing major gaps in their food — expected to rise to 42 per cent of the population by the end of the year from 25 per cent, according to UN figures.